Before the monumental World Cup play-off decider against New Zealand in Doha, Costa Rica has the small matter of a CONCACAF Nations League double-header.
For a little context, the CONCACAF Nations League is a 3-tier competition consisting of 12 nations in League A, 16 in B and 13 in C. Costa Rica is in Group A, alongside Southern neighbors Panama and French overseas territorial island Martinique.
Each country will face off twice (home and away), with the nation finishing bottom relegated to League B, the one finishing second qualifying for the ‘2023 CONCACAF Gold Cup’ and the team ending first also qualifying for the ‘2023 CONCACAF Gold Cup’ as well as advancing to the ‘Nations League Finals’.
Here, the winners of the 4 groups in League A will face off against another League A group winner in 2 semi-finals, with the victors progressing into a final to decide the Nations League champions.
Last campaign, Costa Rica advanced through their group before losing to Mexico on penalties in the semi-final and then failing again to penalties against Honduras in the 3rd place play-off. Los Ticos will wish for better fortunes in the second edition of the competition.
First up is a short trip to face rivals Panama on the 2nd of June, who are seeking revenge on the country who just pipped them to the World Cup play-off spot in the Qualifying Octagon.
In fact, Panama was 5 points ahead of Costa Rica, with just 6 games left before an unforgettable turnaround at the end of the campaign. A nearly implausible overhaul that is still hurting Panamanians months after. Whilst differingly, still being celebrated as an incredible comeback by Costa Ricans. The beautiful contrast of emotions in this crazy sport, aye!
Panama and Costa Rica are well-accustomed neighbors, sharing a 348 km border between the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. This familiarity also transmits to football, with the 2 nations facing off a whopping 57 times since their first match in 1931. Of those games, Costa Rica has been the dominant force, winning 31, with Panama triumphing 14 times and the other 12 encounters ending in draws.
Whilst La Sele has a weightier World Cup play-off to look forward to after this contest, Los Canaleros (Panama’s nickname) have their lenses solely focused on the Nations League in this round of fixtures, which should give them a distinct advantage going into the game. While the Panama players can go hell for leather in the League, La Sele ones will see this game as an aperitif before the vastly more important play-off, and it will not be surprising to see Luis Fernando Suárez and his players manage this one with caution.
Since he took charge in 2020, coach Thomas Christiansen has relied on a solid core of players representing the most successful era of Panamanian football (including a debut World Cup appearance in 2018). This trend continues in his squad for the upcoming match, excluding vital players Harold Cummings, Armando Cooper and Andrés Andrade, who all miss out due to injury.
The likes of Luis Mejía in goal; Eric Davis, Fidel Escobar and Michael Amir Murillo in defence; Alberto Quintero, Aníbal Godo and Yoel Bárcenas in midfield; and Gabriel Torres and Rolando Blackburn in the attack have all written themselves into Panamanian footballing folklore and will be planning to strike vengeance on La Sele in front of their faithful home supporters.
However, these predominantly ageing stars will still need to be supplemented by younger players as Panama glimpses at the dawn of a new generation, with the likes of César Blackman, José Luis Rodríguez and Freddy Góndola looking like exciting prospects. Góndola, who is club teammates with Celso Borges, Bryan Ruiz and Johan Venegas at Costa Rican champions Alajuelense, is called up to Los Canaleros for just the second time and should hold valuable insight into his opponent’s tactics.
Despite a steady decline in results since their peak in 2018, due primarily to the fact that the core of the team is now entering the twilight of their careers (akin to Costa Rica’s), Panama still provides a decent threat and are currently ranked a respectable 61st in the world (for comparison Costa Rica are ranked 31st).
With another CONCACAF Nations League game at home against Martinique just 3 days after this one, as well as the play-off against New Zealand 12 days later, Luis Fernando Suárez might use this tie to get vital minutes into the legs of his key players and use the weaker opponent of Martinique to give opportunities to fringe players after such a short turnaround between matches. But anything is possible with the distraction of another potential historic World Cup place looming for all involved.
However, one player who will not feature in either Nations League fixture is talismanic goalkeeper Keylor Navas. After a difficult campaign with PSG, Navas will rest and instead meet up with the squad in Doha for the New Zealand match, which gives a little indicator of how Suárez views the Nations League compared to the play-off, as he is prepared to rest his best player.
Nonetheless, momentum is key in this sport, and a victory for Los Ticos will do wonders for team morale. And with Luis Fernando Suárez starting 11 for the play-off match still up in the air, every player on display will be hoping to impress enough to cement their spot.
Furthermore, with the chance to qualify directly for the ‘2023 CONCACAF Gold Cup’ and advance to the ‘Nations League Finals’ at stake, the Nations League still poses an attractive incentive, so you can still expect a competitive encounter between these well-acquainted rivals.
The CONCACAF Nations League opener between Costa Rica and Panama will be played at the Estadio Rommel Fernández (Panama City) at 18:30 UTC on the 2nd of June.